"We're collectors," explains Jennie Thornton, wine and spirits educator at Vara Winery & Distillery. "We collect grapes and juice from all over the world and bring them here to Albuquerque." Vara Winery, which maintains a "vinoteca" in Santa Fe and a tasting room in Albuquerque, has produced a wide slate of award-winning wines over the last 10 years. The wines are derived from agricultural sources in Spain and California, bottled and fermented here in New Mexico.
Despite the fact that winemaking in New Mexico dates all the way back to 1629—when a Franciscan friar named García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first European wine grapes at a pueblo in the Rio Grande Valley—our state lags behind others in terms of worldwide recognition.
But that's starting to change.
With the help of Jennie Thornton, who joined the company in 2021, Vara is pushing its brand and educating consumers with weekly wine tasting classes. The classes take place Wednesdays and Fridays in Albuquerque and Tuesdays and Thursdays at in Santa Fe. The classes not only help expose rotating groups of locals and tourists to the products that Vara produces, but they teach wine lovers—from casual to aficionado—how to navigate the often confusing international world of wine.
Vara came together in 2013, a meeting of the minds among several local vintners and wine sellers. Thornton arrived at Vara a year and a half ago with more than 20 years experience in the business. Originally from Albuquerque, she confesses, "I'm a boomerang." Thornton began her wine career in California's legendary Napa Valley at Joseph Phelps Vineyards as a wine educator and cellar worker. She eventually traveled from Napa to London to Manhattan. In Europe she worked as a chef, giving her insight into how food and wine pair. Just prior to coming back home to New Mexico, she taught the Wine & Spirit Education Trust curriculum at the prestigious International Wine Center in NYC. But like so many people, Thornton found her career shut down by COVID. After months of weathering the lockdown in New York, she started to miss all of her family in New Mexico. "It was time to boomerang back," she says. She returned to the state in 2021 and, as she puts it, "I found Vara, and Vara found me."
Thornton's 90-minute classes are small, topping out at 10 or 12 participants. In Albuquerque, they take place in the nicely appointed tasting room, a cozy, bar-like corner of Vara's large warehouse facility alongside Balloon Fiesta Park. Six wines are chosen for each tasting session, a mix of old favorites from the cellar and the newest seasonal varietals to roll off Vara's winecart. Thornton leads the tasters on a journey though the wines, demonstrating techniques like the proper way to open a screw-top wine bottle, explaining technical terms like "perlage," "length" and "finish" and explaining how each type of wine differs from the last.
Many folks don't know anything beyond "red wine, white wine, rose and sparkling." Even regular wine drinkers may be unfamiliar with much past the common varietals (cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, merlot, syrah, pinot noir, etc.). But Thornton is happy to sing the praises of Albariño or Carineña.
Well-educated palate aside, Thornton is quick to confess to her students that she is "overwhelmed by the amount of arrogance in this business. Don't like it at all." Despite her belief that, "The language wine tasters use to talk about wine is arrogant," Thornton does her best to clue tasters in to tastes/smells like "smoke, leather, pomegranate and dark cherry." Thornton's casual, chatty wine tastings—punctuated, here and there, with palate-cleansing snacks from a charcuterie plate—take people on a personal journey. She details her own history, education and struggle to figure out how wine smells like anything other than, you know, wine. An occasional dip into the science behind the magic helps. Between sips, she relates tales about how historical women—chemist Ann Noble, grande dame of Champagne Veuve Clicquot and French magnate Lily Bollinger—advanced the winemaking industry.
At the end of the each class—which is likely to include repeat customers—the students emerge a bit more informed, with a slight wine buzz and eager to dig deeper into Vara's extensive catalogue of New Mexico-made wines.
Vara's wine tasting classes happen Wednesdays and Fridays in Albuquerque (315 Alameda Blvd. NE) at 1pm and Tuesdays and Thursdays at in Santa Fe (329 W. San Francisco St.) at 11am. Cost is $30 per person. For more information go to varawines.com.
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